Hamburg via Harwich to change the world of music

ONCE upon our time, says Martin Newell, when life was still in black and white, four pied pipers returned from a faraway land and began to play music that no-one had ever heard before.

ONCE upon our time, when life was still in black and white, four pied pipers returned from a faraway land and began to play music that no-one had ever heard before.

So intoxicating was this music, that when the pipers began touring from town to town, most of the children from the places which they’d visited followed them out of the gates. Some of us never came back.

Just over 50 years ago, on August 16, 1960, 19 year-old John Lennon stood on the quayside at Harwich and watched his band’s van being hoisted onto a ferry bound for Hamburg. He and his three companions, all of them also in their teens, were bound for an adventure which, culturally at least, would change the world. What followed involved the band playing 106 nights, in seven-hour shifts at two clubs, the Indira and the Kaiserkeller. Both venues were situated on a street called Grosse Freiheit, which, 27 years later, your correspondent would also briefly know. The Beatles’ marathon stint ended in late November of 1960. The four gauche, bequiffed young northerners had left their homeland, little more than inspired amateurs. Three and a half months of being a human jukebox in the red-light district of post-war Hamburg moulded them into an irresistable musical force.

Essex’s connections with The Beatles are slight. Less than 20 months after leaving England by its picket gate, the Beatles returned to our county in 1963. They appeared in cinemas in Romford and Southend – twice at both places. The closest they ever came to Essex again was at the Gaumont, Ipswich in October of the following year. In 1963 alone, they’d played something in the order of 230 separate engagements, four of them in Essex. This schedule does not count their radio and TV broadcasts – or any rehearsals and recording sessions. It was an amount of work which no young band nowadays would even encounter, let alone set out to do. In the early 1960s, however, it was exactly such a workload which helped to turn the Beatles and their music into something bordering upon a youth deity.

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In 1963 the demographic, economic and sociological circumstances all converged. Suddenly the post-war baby-boomers were teenagers with disposable income There were jobs. It was frequently said that of that time, that you could walk out of a job in the morning and be re-employed by the afternoon. The class barriers were fracturing, especially so in the wake of the Profumo-Keeler Affair. The scandal eventually brought down the Tory PM, Harold Macmillan, allowing his successor, Alec Douglas Home, only a short tenure as leader. Within a few months, Harold Wilson’s young Labour government would sweep to power and the world got a new soundtrack. The four young northerners who created it were the right age, in the right place and at the right time.

For The Beatles, it was a perfect storm.

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Paul McCartney, many years later, having ruled out any chance of a Beatles reunion, was interviewed on the subject and said incredulously: “We did all of that – and now people are upset because we won’t do it again?” He had a point. Even within their recorded output, they’d travelled from the rinky-dink tones of Love Me Do to the almost alien brilliance of Strawberry Fields Forever – all within the first four years. In 1969, when the band finally broke up, even their millions of fans would be asking themselves: “Did that really happen?” But who knows what it must actually have been like for the Beatles themselves, to have experienced youth, riches and fame to such a degree, all in that single opiate shot.

If the Beatles, though, couldn’t, or wouldn’t repeat the trick, there are plenty of others who remain enamoured enough of the idea to keep on trying. And then there are the tribute bands. Worldwide, there are hundreds, if not thousands of them nowadays. The best of these, for the present at least, remain the The Bootleg Beatles, who’ve been going for over three decades. In this region we have our own contenders. There are Colchester’s own The Fabs, who pack out Colchester Arts Centre each Christmas. There’s also a duo, Words and Music by Lennon/McCartney, whom I’ve never heard a single criticism of, so uncannily good are they said to be.

The proposal came late last summer. Did I fancy being part of a band, who would attempt to resurrect about 20 Beatles songs for a single gig in a local pub – just for Christmas? It’s the closest a chap like me ever gets to pantomime. I stepped back like an old builder assessing a chancy job. I shook my head and sucked the air in through my teeth. My first question was, did everyone concerned in this venture know what a musical minefield awaited them? Beatles songs are no pushover, you know. If you really want to get them right, there’s some serious homework involved. For a start, the harmonies and call-response vocal parts are a job in themselves. On the other hand, I do still have a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. It’s a real boy’s toy and I don’t get many excuses these days to haul it out from under the bed and thrash it. Naturally I said yes – to two months of weekly rehearsals and all the homework. All for a couple of hours of playing Beatles songs in a boozer at Christmas. And all because, 50 years ago, some northern boys left for Hamburg via Harwich. Some of us never came back.

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